Strategic Enrichment: The Key To Farmed Animal Happiness?
Across the globe, millions of farmed animals live out their brief lives in barren, stressful conditions. Farmed animals deprived of environmental and social enrichment may suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. This can also lead to abnormal behaviors, like tail biting in pigs and feather pecking in hens.
Over the last few years, as our understanding of animal sentience has developed, there has been an increased focus on providing environmental enrichment to improve the lives and welfare of animals housed on factory farms. This study draws upon human and animal research to explore how enrichment affects farmed animals.
For enrichment to be effective, it must consider the animal’s physical, sensory, social, and nutritional needs. So, what does effective enrichment look like? Recent studies show that some of the most effective forms of enrichment include:
- Puzzles and learning tasks
- Music playback
- Variation of feeding times
Environmental improvements like replacing laying hen cages with aviaries furnished with perches and a nest box can also improve animal welfare.
Further studies show that when pigs and chickens are housed in enriched environments, they display lower stress responses to the slaughterhouse experience. Enriched environments can also increase optimistic emotions in chickens and reduce abnormal behaviors like tail biting and feather pecking.
The benefits of enrichment are not limited to physical enrichment. For example, social enrichment in dairy cattle improves learning and encourages cognitive development. Research suggests that adding enrichment in the early stages of an animal’s life is key to improving their welfare, especially for animals who live brief lives such as chickens raised for meat.
To show the close relationship between cognitive development and better welfare, the authors of this study draw upon the results of human studies. Some research suggests that children raised in less-than-ideal conditions (for example, those in orphanages and in poverty) often suffer from reduced cognitive development. This can increase the risk of developing anxiety and mental health disorders in adulthood. There is also a clear relationship in humans between happiness and greater emotional intelligence.
By applying the results from human studies to farmed animals, scientists found that individuals without early cognitive stimulation could develop poor emotional intelligence. This can lead to the individual suffering from poor mental health and a reduced ability to deal with stressful events, such as the slaughterhouse experience.
While the benefits seem to be clear, animal advocates must also keep in mind the drawbacks. One of the major challenges with enrichment comes down to logistics. With so many farmed animals housed in the same space, any increase to the complexity of the environment could lead to injury, health problems, and the spread of disease.
Furthermore, while farmers may be able to provide enrichment during rearing, it may be hard to continue providing it during the adult stage. This comes down to the increased demands of looking after adult animals. Research shows that when enrichment is taken away from farmed animals, it can bring on negative emotions or other welfare problems. Removal of enrichment (because an animal is housed somewhere new, or because the enrichment becomes damaged) can also induce boredom and inactivity.
In contrast to positive correlations between enrichment and farmed animal welfare, research also shows that enrichment can have a negative impact on animals who are afraid of new things. Also, intense enrichment during the early stages of a farmed animal’s life can boost cognitive development so much that they require more stimulation than their environment can provide. Therefore, the authors suggest that it’s best to focus on “strategic” or “targeted” enrichment programs. These programs target the brain areas or skills that enable farmed animals to best adapt to their environment. For example, laying hens destined for aviary systems can be reared with ramps to help them develop their spatial awareness and navigation skills. Similarly, providing social enrichment for pigs may help them cope when they’re placed with new pigs in future housing.
Many animal advocates seek ways of improving farmed animal welfare, and enrichment is one way of making their lives a little bit better. However, this article shows that it’s important to consider enrichment carefully to avoid unintentional negative impacts. Further research on enrichment can ensure that future programs are developed to suit the environments and experiences that farmed animals are likely to encounter.